Catriona Kelly 

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh – review

Catriona Kelly is almost seduced by a love letter to style
  
  

In The Enchanter, Lila Azam Zanganeh attempts to create a new genre: the Bildungs-romance. The book details its author's love affair with Nabokov, and tells how she learned to read books from his novels, using them as doorways to magical worlds.

Rather than attempt conventional biography or literary criticism, she portrays a series of encounters with moments from Nabokov's biography – his last months in Switzerland, his childhood in Russia, his early love affairs. She invents an interview with "VN" about his years in the USA, and provides a whimsical anti-glossary for some of his flamboyantly obscure vocabulary.

All of this is interwoven with Zanganeh's responses to Nabokov's writing, particularly Ada, but also Lolita and Laura, with the theme of happiness always central. By this, Zanganeh explains, she does not mean "platitudinous happy characters", but "deep joyousness", "bliss", or "ecstasy". This is a feeling "connected to the edge, an experience of limits (in its quasi-mathematical sense of an open-end), which in turn becomes one of extreme poetry".

The book strives to recreate the "unearthly inebriation" of reading Nabokov, at times by direct quotation, at times by imitation of his style – as when Zanganeh describes Speak, Memory as "no hollow monument to the past, no search into its designs, unseen at first sight, yet stippled, ever so lightly, in the texture of time".

Somewhere between reverence and reverie, both eloquent and gauche, the tone is completely different from such outwardly comparable subjective and wayward descriptions of encounters with writers and writing as Andrei Siniavsky's Strolls with Pushkin or Elif Batuman's The Possessed.

Where Siniavsky and Batuman maintain a certain stubborn and wry sense of self-possession in the face of classic writers, Zanganeh seeks to efface her own personality. Hinting at parallels in her own biography to Nabokov's (not writing in one's childhood language, coming from a refugee background), she does not develop these, preferring to bob along in the master's wake.

Ornamented with charmingly naïve drawings by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, and preceded by a hand-sketched "happiness itinerary", The Enchanter at times recaptures that period of childhood when a join-up-the-dots picture really did seem to promise a thrilling quest. Mainly dwelling on the luminescence and colour-saturation of Nabokov's prose, Zanganeh has a feeling for his ludic side too. A sketch of her fumbling attempts, after a childhood shorn of contact even with cows, to net a cabbage white while walking in the groomed wilderness of a national park, brings Pnin irresistibly to mind.

Though some aspects of The Enchanter are achingly arch (for example, the rambling subtitles to chapters, or a vision of the reader training a telescope on Zanganeh's brown-eyed self), there are hints that the author is sharper-witted than her narratorial pose would often suggest.

The "first encounter" with Nabokov's writing is described three times, on each occasion differently. In the opening pages, Ada converts a prone and listless Zanganeh to reading when she is living in the USA. Later, she describes how her mother's teasing references to the novel provoked her to acquire a copy, "in translation", during her childhood. And then again, Ada becomes the second novel by Nabokov that she encountered during her romance with the writer. As Zanganeh puts it elsewhere, "I am lying a little".

In some respects, the book takes risks. Zanganeh is aware of Nabokov's implacably ironic attitude to "lady writers". She surely recalls the passage in a letter where he says that even the best women novelists made him think of someone lounging on a sofa with a self-satisfied smile. Yet she begins her book with an image of herself on a "plump couch" – an attempt, no doubt, to play on and neutralise the image.

When Zanganeh follows two pages accurately describing Nabokov's detestation of the most harmless speculation about his married life with a sketch of how VN might have entered his wife's room in Montreux to find her "lying naked, supine, gray-blue eyes lifted skywards", one may assume that a point about the necessary indecency of a writer's voyeurism, as opposed to a journalist's or biographer's, is being made.

Yet Zanganeh's relationship with Nabokov, however carefully calculated, remains on occasions less happy than haphazard. Passages read less like the work of "VN" himself than like editor Brian Boyd's life-and-works resculpted in fondant icing. "One cobalt-blue morning of butterfly hunting, in August 1971, after climbing a Swiss mountain, looking tanned and serene, net in hand, Vladimir Nabokov told his son Dmitri he had fulfilled all he ever dreamed and was a supremely happy man."

As a writer, Zanganeh entirely lacks Nabokov's genial pedantry. She can be imprecise, even sloppy. "A sea of gravestones is sprawling before me [. . .] The sun-washed graves shine noiselessly in the cool of this early September morning." Referring to "the round apricot of a glistening mouth" sounds impressive – if you have never looked carefully at an apricot. At times, Zanganeh achieves not so much ventriloquism in the occultic sense as the distorted imitation of speech of a music-hall dummy.

All the same, The Enchanter has some resemblance, in places, to a genuine book – an artist's book, even, though one turned out by the machine of international publishing. Readers who already know Nabokov will have the delight of recognition – and not always when the writer himself is being quoted. Others will happily follow Zanganeh down the seductive paths of the maze that she has created. As for the minority who may find that the repeated image in The Enchanter that stays with them is the one of someone "screaming quietly", then some of them would probably have been Nabokov-haters to begin with.

Catriona Kelly's Children's World: Growing Up in Russia is published by Yale.

 

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